Extensive gift of access

The announcement earlier this week that 53,000ha of Central Otago countryside is going to be protected under Queen Elizabeth II National Trust covenants has prompted plenty of applause. As Shane Gilchrist discovers, history is being made in the hinterland.

Heritage

Fauna

Gatekeeper

Snow bunnies have long praised the vistas from Treble Cone, Cardrona, Coronet Peak and other high perches in the terrain between Wanaka and the Wakatipu.

So, too, have passengers whose flights to or from Queenstown have offered another vantage point of all those rugged mountains clothed in tussock.

Now, there is a different view to ponder: that 53,000ha of the countryside - equal in size to the combined areas of Paparoa and Abel Tasman national parks - is going to be protected.

Earlier this week, the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust and Soho Properties Ltd, a company linked with millionaire record producer Robert ''Mutt'' Lange, announced an agreement to place covenants over most of Motatapu, Mount Soho, Glencoe and Coronet Peak stations, which cover a large part of the country between Lake Wanaka and Arrowtown and are bordered by the Shotover River and the Cardrona Valley.

The covenants will protect outstanding high-country landscapes, flora and fauna, significant heritage sites as well as opening up access to areas for recreational use, including walking and mountain-biking. In effect, it is similar to a national park but is held in private hands.

It is a big deal, according to Mike Jebson, chief executive of the QEII National Trust.

''This set of four covenants is equivalent to 15 years of our target.

''We get about $4.2 million in funding annually from the Crown (signed off by the Minister of Conservation) to support our work. We have annual targets of numbers of areas to secure.

"We now have about 4000 covenants across the country, from Stewart Island to the Far North.''

The approval of the Soho Property Ltd covenant brings the QEII National Trust's total protected area to more than 178,000ha.

Excluding the Soho proposal, covenants vary in size from less than 1ha to 6500ha. The average size of a covenant is 30ha.

''It is definitely a huge asset to the public of New Zealand, right in the heart of one of our most important tourism zones,'' Mr Jebson said.

It is expected the covenants will be formally registered in early 2015, after survey work has been completed and processed by the Commissioner of Crown Lands.

The commissioner is responsible for administering Crown pastoral leases.

Controlled by Mr Lange (who has an estimated fortune of more than $US200 million, according to celebritynetworth.com), Soho Properties Ltd is bearing much of the cost of the process.

This includes: controlling pest species such as goats, possums, wilding pines and other weeds; major planting programmes on river margins; fencing off waterways, wetlands, tussocklands and shrublands; working with Ngai Tahu and the Department of Conservation on reintroducing native buff weka to the area; and retiring almost all previously farmed areas with the exception of valley floors that can sustain sheep grazing.

''The covenant doesn't encapsulate the entire property; 5% of the combined land of the four properties remains available to be farmed and sits outside the covenant; the remaining 95% of land has to be surveyed to satisfy the contractual conditions of the covenant,'' Mr Jebson said.

''Obviously, a lot of this land is very remote so the surveying, to get those boundaries established, will be done by helicopter and field work.

''In this case, we are in an extremely fortunate position in that the landowner has done virtually all the fencing required.

"There is a small amount of fencing left to be done.''

In regards to public access, Overseas Investment Office rules already require Soho to provide walking access easements to 17 areas.

But it seems that's just the start.

''There will be an extensive network of tracks, some of which are formed already, some of which will be formed.

"These will criss-cross over the properties and open up areas to which the public hasn't had access previously,'' Mr Jebson said.

''It won't be open slather over all the covenanted areas because, obviously, there are still some areas of farmland involved.

''There will certainly be additional huts.

"There are already three huts on an existing track that goes between Glendhu Bay and Arrowtown, part of Te Araroa (the 3000km national trail stretching from Cape Reinga to Bluff). But there is now the opportunity to look at other spots for huts,'' Mr Jebson said.

''Access is not directly part of the covenant but is being developed in parallel, through the work we are doing with Soho Property Ltd, the New Zealand Walking Access Commission, the Department of Conservation and the Queenstown Lakes District Council.

''From my point of view, we are working very well with our partners in Heritage New Zealand, the Department of Conservation, the Queenstown Lakes District Council and the NZ Walking Access Commission. Everyone is on the same page,'' Mr Jebson said.

Ric Cullinane, operations manager for the New Zealand Walking Access Commission, points out that Soho is going well beyond its brief in terms of providing access to its land.

''Soho is required, through the OIO, to bring all the tracks up to a minimum standard, which it has already done enthusiastically. Soho is generously presenting a fantastic package,'' Mr Cullinane said.

''Mutt Lange has generously provided at least another four tracks for a range of purposes, including to provide a better gradient or contour as well as take in some scenic or historic views.''

The Walking Access Commission is working on easement and other legal aspects of public access.

It will present this information to the Commissioner of Crown Lands for approval of ''development corridors.''

''The QEII covenant attaches to the lease, which is owned by Mutt Lange and his company; the easements are attached to the land, which is owned by the Crown,'' Mr Cullinane says.

''There is a raft of statutory hoops we have to go through with the Commissioner of Crown Lands.

"We are working with him, Doc, QLDC, and Queenstown Trails Trust in terms of management, development and maintenance of the tracks.

''We should have most of the information to the commissioner by the end of September, maybe October,'' Mr Cullinane said, adding he expected the first stage of approval ''in principle'' of up to 21 tracks by early next year.

''Most of the routes are already being used. Macetown Road is an example.

There is no legal right to be on that road; some other tracks are just lines on a map and need to be determined; others need to be formed and benched.

''This is a huge opportunity for the area. A lot of bike and walking trails are already there but are quite flat.

"This adds another whole dimension,'' he said.

''You might spend a day walking along flats, then be clambering over wild tussock country the next.

"There is a whole suite of amenity use that is more than the sum of its parts. It's a pretty exciting announcement.''